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6 Tent Cities Making a Difference

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BY ADAM K. RAYMOND

Maybe you've heard—the economy is in trouble. That typically means people are losing their jobs. Which comes right before people lose their homes. When those people don't have a spacious car to move into or a generous aunt to crash with, their only option might be to move in to the inhospitable accommodations known as tent cities.


Believe it or not, this recession has seen a surge in tent cities. While the numbers don't match up anywhere close to the days of Hoovervilles or even Reagan's tent cities, almost 61 percent of the country's homeless groups have seen a rise in homelessness since the housing crisis began in 2007, according to a report by the National Coalition for the Homeless. Here are just a few of the stories we've been keeping tabs on.

1. The Most Civilized Tent City in the World (Seattle, WA)

While most modern tent cities seem content to call themselves Tent City, the homeless in Seattle have honored Mayor Greg Nickels by naming their newest encampment Nickelsville. Located in a church parking lot, the city sprang up in late September and quickly evolved from a lawless encampment into a modern mini-city. Residents have established rules (no smoking, drugs or visitors between 9 pm and 7 am) and set up an arbitration council to mediate disputes. Despite its organization, Nickelsville and its 90-plus members haven't quite endeared themselves to city leaders who have demanded that it merge with another encampment (so there will only be one set of tented shelters within city limits). Some have also claimed that Nickelsvillians aren't actually homeless, but protestors with homes. Nick Hoffener, a 28-year-old Iraq War vet and Nickelsville resident, disagrees. "The mayor says everybody here has a home to go to; I don't understand it. I've slept on the doorsteps of churches and under bridges. I've slept in a lot of places. Here you don't have to worry about people coming to kill you."

2. The Tent City That's Becoming an Eye Sore (Athens, GA)

The Tent City in East Athens is growing so rapidly that earlier this year police had to ask its residents to move back into the woods and away from a road where passers-by could see them. Sitting on a plot of private land, the Athens encampment is over a decade and a half old according to "Radar," a 39-year-old resident who wasn't happy about  being asked to move. "Tent City has been here for 17 years, and all of a sudden we're in everyone's sight?" The number of residents in Athens' Tent City has fluctuated between the mid-single digits to as many as 30. A few months ago, a visitor found about eight people living there, one of whom voted.

3. The City that Offers Job Placement

a.hope.pngIn January 2007, city officials raided a tent city near downtown St. Petersburg, slashing tents and attracting criticism. Not long after, an outdoor tent city called Pinellas Hope sprang up nearby, providing a place for many of the displaced to live. Today, run by Catholic Charities, Pinellas Hope is a thriving outdoor community for hundreds of homeless. Unlike the makeshift encampments scattered throughout the country, Pinellas Hope has millions of dollars in funding and requires residents to perform daily chores and meet regularly with caseworkers. The program seems to be working.

Around 371 residents moved out in the camp's first five months and most found jobs and moved into their own homes.

The facility has inspired officials in nearby Pasco and Hillsborough counties to discuss setting up similar tent cities.

4. The City That Casino Layoffs Built (Reno, NV)

Reno's Tent City popped up around railroad tracks in the northern part of the city earlier this year when homeless shelters began overflowing. It didn't last long. City officials opened two new shelters last month and evicted the 160 Tent City residents. Why so many homeless in the Biggest Little City in the world? Blame the casinos. Out of a dozen people living in the Tent City interviewed by the Las Vegas Review Journal in October, six had come from out of state to find jobs at casinos, which have begun laying people off. The Reno Area Alliance for the Homeless estimates that 3,000 people around Reno are living in a temporary situation, which includes motels, shelters and the street.

5.The City where Homeless Pay Water Bills

a.dignity.pngWith a village council and elected officials, Portland's Dignity Village is like a city unto itself. And unlike many other tent cities, it's legal. Dignity Village won that distinction in 2004 when, after a four year campaign, the tent city was officially recognized as a campground. That designation meant that it was no longer violated city zoning laws. In 2007 Dignity Village, which is home to 60 people, entered into a management contract with the city that expanded the land it sits on and made it so residents have to pay for their own water and sewer service. It was the latest upgrade to the encampment that has evolved from tents on asphalt to walled structures built from two-by-fours and sheetrock.

6. For Homeless, By Homeless

Down by Ventura Harbor there's a modest tent city run by homeless people for homeless people. Residents pay rent, follow a list of posted rules and perform chores. Rule breakers are evicted. The camp makes it a goal to move residents into conventional housing; so far, two dozen people have done so. Ventura Harbor is seen as a temporary space, providing homes for the homeless until the county provides 500 beds of supportive housing by 2012. The group living in and running Ventura Harbor, known as the "Dirty Thirty," was forced to relocate from the river bottoms in December 2004 and moved around 30 times. Some in government oppose the encampment while others say it's the best option for the homeless. "It works, and the residents deserve a huge amount of the credit," said Clyde Reynolds, director of the nonprofit Turning Point Foundation and a camp founder.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.

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